Why? vs. What for?

29Aug15

It occurred to me that goal-oriented people should ask “what for?” (and then “how?”) rather than “why?” It happened like this:

An acquaintance has rheumatoid arthritis. Her joints–fingers, wrists, and knees–are swollen, deformed, and painful. She complained about the ineffectiveness of various treatments she had undergone. (In case you didn’t know, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease made worse, if not caused, by chronic inflammation.) I asked her then whether her diet was anti-inflammatory (most calories from fat, with little to no grains) or pro-inflammatory (most calories from carbohydrates, with lots of grain products). As was to be expected, her diet was pro-inflammatory–mostly bread, pasta, pastry, sugar. I advised her to try eliminating at least the grains and sweets to see if that helped.

More than a week later we met again at her sister’s home. She (the woman with arthritis) told us that she did eliminate the grains and sweets, and after a few days her joints hurt much less and she could walk easier. She asked me, “Why is that?” Before I could reply, her sister served her coffee (I had tea) and asked her, “Do you want sugar with it?”

“Yes” (she looked at me sheepishly).

“How about a slice of cake?”

“Sure” (the same look again).

And thus she broke the good streak.

This made me think: Had she asked herself “what for?” after each of her sister’s offers, wouldn’t she stick to what was working? Take a look:

“Do you want sugar with it?”

“What for, to be hurting again?”

“How about a slice of cake?”

“What for, to be hurting again?”

I think “what for” questions are more action-oriented and forward-looking than “why” questions, such as “Why does the body work the way it does?” “Why do some foods promote inflammation?” “Why is her sister doing this to her?” (Also, “what for?” feels more assertive than “why?”)

I apply this thinking to all activities (e.g., “What do I do this exercise for?”). This question, in the case of an exercise, makes me think hard about “whether, when, and how” to do this exercise, and what I am going to get out of doing it. In other words, asking “what for?” tells me what effect or outcome I seek to achieve by following a particular course of action, while asking “why?” focuses on the causes. Would you like sugar with your coffee? Why – because you like your coffee sweet. What for – to make your joints hurt again. What do you think?

Optimal Nutrition by Dr. Jan Kwasniewski

Flexibility Express DVD by Thomas Kurz

The Unbreakable® Umbrella — A peculiar mix of genteel elegance and chilling weaponry...

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7 Responses to “Why? vs. What for?”

  1. 1 Alex

    Dear Mr. Kurtz,

    I’m a longtime admirer of your work and subscriber to you newsletter. However, the information presented in this article is, at best, an incomplete picture of the subject. There is growing evidence to show that whole grains reduce inflammation…
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821887/pdf/nut1400587.pdf

    While animal fat/protein can increase it…
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7484/full/nature12820.html

    While I’m happy to hear the person in question found relief, it’s quite possible this improvement came from the elimination of processed carbohydrates (like the cake in question) which has indeed been linked to inflammatory response (see first link above). Lastly, there is mounting evidence that animal fat/protein consumption can lead to a variety of negative health consequences including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Peer reviewed literature is easy to come by concerning these subjects.

    Kind regards,

    Alex

  2. Hi Coach,
    I like this. Really important to consider the exercises used in programming. I get caught up in what i did last time, or seeing something new on youtube as.much as the next person.
    Luckily, i just inflict that on myself before i try with out athletes!

  3. @Alex
    “She (the woman with arthritis) told us that she did eliminate the grains and sweets, and after a few days her joints hurt much less and she could walk easier.”
    The bulk of her carbs were pasta and bread (until she eliminated them for a few days), not cakes.

  4. 4 Alex

    @thomaskurz

    I mentioned the elimination of refined carbohydrates as possibly being an explanation. This doesn’t change the fact that the statement you made…

    “I asked her then whether her diet was anti-inflammatory (most calories from fat, with little to no grains) or pro-inflammatory (most calories from carbohydrates, with lots of grain products).”

    Does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. I have posted two links to peer-reviewed articles demonstrating whole grains (with plenty of carbohydrates) reduce inflammation while red meat (with lots of fat) increases it. In fact, are you aware that eating beef causes the same level of insulin release as french fries?

  5. 5 Andrew

    @Alex
    I suggest you read the book posted in this article, “Optimal nutrition”, or any other work by dr. Kwasniewski.

  6. 6 Marcus

    Glad to see you back Coach Kurz.
    I’ve been checking in for the last year, wondering if you’d be posting again.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you are working on / thinking on. Particularly in relation to flexibility through strength.

    Thanks again for posting.

  7. 7 Ray

    It is unfortunate that every responder to this post has COMPLETELY missed the point of the topic!!! -When to use the question “Why?” or “For what?” It’s absolutely disturbing! Are people so ego-centric these days that they can’t even comprehend another person’s question? Anyway, I think that “Why?” is a more versatile question that “For what?” (It is generally preferential to use not end a sentence with a proposition.)


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